Heuristics with Technique

Written by: Kevin Cann

I was having a conversation with a couple of people online that sparked the idea for this article.  There is this current theme in the lifting world that everyone needs to find the best technique for them as an individual.  This gives many lifters the ok to keep lifting how they are currently lifting, and in many cases, this is utilizing a technique that is very limited.

When I first started powerlifting, I was guided by Boris Sheiko for 3 years.  He preached that technique was the most important aspect of training.  At some point you cannot outlift physics.  As the years went by, I entered my angsty teen phase as a coach.

I was reading the information out there saying that technique for everyone is different and you need to find what works best for you.  I became much more lax with my coaching of the technical aspects and just let things play out.  This went well until it didn’t.

Every teenager goes through this angsty phase in life where they rebel against their parents.  I would imagine my 12 year old daughter will be proving me right soon.  However, as you go through this period you end up learning that your parents knew a thing or two and you end up coming back around, but with more perspective and wisdom.

Through this time I began talking to a lot of coaches and lifters that have been around a lot longer than me.  I always found experience to be very important, perhaps more important than formal education.  This was probably because I have a master’s degree in this field but felt that I did not know how to get people incredibly strong without that experience.  For this experience, I leaned on others.

Everyone disagrees about certain aspects of training, but there was one constant that all of the OGs had, and that was the emphasis on technique.  The one thing that ALL of these coaches and lifters emphasized as being important, is the one thing that I am seeing being shrugged off in the current powerlifting world.

There is a bit of a caveat here. How wide someone grips the bar on squats, stance width, bench grip, bench feet placement, and deadlift style will be some examples of technique that will vary from person to person. However, I believe that many coaches and lifters extend the individuality of technique beyond these few things.

I think part of this is because we have a culture that focuses on the individual.  Another part of this is we have a sport that only blew up recently and it is inundated with coaches and lifters that do not know how to get people strong as fuck.  

Sometimes we end up with freaks that have shitty technique and monster numbers early in their careers. People view this and assume that is the technique that works best for that lifter.  Just because they are strong doing it that way it does not make them right.

Biomechanics and injury are very poorly correlated in the literature.  This does not mean we should ignore it.  Lifting in a manner that distributes the load over the body in a more efficient and evenly manner is going to help the lifter to continue to lift long term.

Let us look at a lifter that exhibits a hard elbow flare off of the chest in the bench press.  Oftentimes, when lifters begin their powerlifting journey, this is the technique they exhibit.  When we utilize this technique, we rely heavily on the delts and pecs to complete the movement (this is due to the horizontal adduction and shoulder flexion).

When the elbows flare out, we also get internal rotation of the humerus, another action the pecs play a major role in.  When I look at this technique, I see a lifter that needs to work on their triceps.  The triceps help us move the bar in a straight line off of our chest.  If you get stuck halfway up, get stronger triceps, do not push the bar back over your face.  The goal is to bench press 800lbs, not 400lbs.  

This is on the lifter to understand the process and to have the drive and motivation to see further into the future.  The less efficient way may be stronger now, but we are shooting for the moon, not the top of the mountain.  This journey takes longer because it requires a greater attention to detail, and it takes much longer to get to your destination.  Anyone can climb a mountain, not many walk on the moon.

The lifters that exhibit the elbow flare technique, tend to have a lot more pec and shoulder discomfort in my experiences.  Biomechanics may be poorly correlated with injuries in the literature, but when we start pushing the capabilities of the system, it changes a little bit.

If I have a 500lbs bench press utilizing an elbow flare, let us say 40% is delts, 50% is pecs, and 10% is triceps (these numbers are completely made up).  If I push up in a straight line, let us say the delts contribute 33%, pecs 33%, and triceps 33%.  In terms of load management, the pecs and shoulders will tolerate higher volumes of training.

If we push up in a straight line, we can shorten the ROM.  Now, ROM is not always the most important aspect of training.  If it was, everyone would pull sumo.  Sheiko was a huge fan of altering ROM to the best of your abilities and just training the shit out of it for years.  Long term, this makes a lot of sense to me.

Then the technique becomes very important.  If we keep the back tight and drive the upper back into the bench, we can take another couple of inches off of the ROM.  Most bench press attempts are missed because a lifter could not generate enough speed off of the chest to get the bar through the sticking point.  The more force going vertically, the better chance we get the speed to get it through the sticking point.  If the bar travels horizontally we end up losing speed on the way up.  I want all of my force going in one direction and with the forearms under the bar, we will get more force driving straight up.

In order to achieve this, it takes a long time to drill it and to get the arms strong.  During this time, the lifter may be weaker in this position than if they flared the elbows and pushed the bar back.  It is not about the numbers at the base of the mountain, it is about doing the things we need to do to get to the moon.

The coach will need to explain this to the lifters so that frustration can be a minimum.  The lifter needs to focus on the process and the daily tasks but ignore the outcomes.  This is an important mindset to have.  Most lifters have been around for 5 years or less.  They are still beginners and early intermediates.

Lifters need to be guided throughout their journey.  This journey should be one that lasts decades.  I think too often, lifters and coaches alike, get too caught up in the moment and lose sight of the larger picture.  I think some of this is just inexperience because the lifter and the coach do not know what the big picture looks like.  I only know what it looks like through the eyes of those that have been there, and I am grateful to them for showing me that bigger picture.

Every coach needs to have heuristics with technique.  You can’t guide someone if you do not know where you are going.  This tends to lead to a focus on the numbers in an Excel spreadsheet to get lifters stronger.  That is not coaching, that is programming.  

The powerlifting world we live in is very focused on the program, but not necessarily on enhancing the mental and physical skills required of the sport.  Also, lifters tend to jump from coach to coach when they perceive things to not be going well. This makes it emotionally draining to the coach, to do the right thing and set the lifter up for long term success, but they want everything right now.  

This probably influences coaches behavior as well.  They may be afraid to tell the lifter to do something that may lead to lower numbers right now because they do not want to lose a client.  This is an understandable fear.  Hopefully as the sport matures this will change.

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